Fragonard: Child’s play / it’s not all fun and games

“Ready or not, here I come!”

Children and adults alike are known to utter this phrase when messing around and playing playground games.  From personal experience it was mostly in “hide and seek” but we also used it in “blind man’s bluff”.

Blind man’s bluff (originally called Blindman’s Buff) has been around for thousands of years and has been traced as far back as Ancient Greece. Although it varies from playground to playground, the simple nature of the game means that is played all across the word.

The game also lends its name to an 18th century painting by French artist Fragonard. This typical Rococo painting consists of two young individuals playfully enjoying a game together. Their playful natures jump off the page and invite the viewers to join them. The two younger children in the painting are in blissful ignorance of the game, one even sleepily leaning against a tree, leaving the two infatuated older ones to inhabit their own playful bubble.

Fragonard, c. 1750-1752, Oil on canvas, 116.8 x 91.4 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo (Ohio)
Fragonard, Blind Man’s Bluff, c. 1750-1752, Oil on canvas, 116.8 x 91.4 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo (Ohio)

It is at first glance a picture of innocence and gentle happiness although others have painted it in a different light. The Toledo Museum of Art, where it is housed, describes it as “playfully erotic and sensuously painted”.

Perhaps this analysis places Blind Man’s Bluff into context with Fragonard’s later or earlier work as his prevalent themes were usually of a sensual and slightly erotic nature; Fragonard was best known for his private commissions, such as the Progress of Love panels he created for Madame du Barry (although she wasn’t too fond of them and decided against displaying them in her house).

The initial innocence of Blind Man’s Bluff could be downplayed by the symbolic representation of the folly of marriage as was often the case with 16th and 17th century artists. The “unknown” and “unpredictable” nature of this game is reflected in the many “unknown” and “unpredictable” aspects of marriage, the teasing and flirting that comes beforehand is synonymous with the blindfolded person in a game of blind man’s bluff. They are not able to see what is truly before them; their rose tinted glasses are replaced by the complete obscurity of the blindfold. The blindfold acts as a protection, sheltering the young girl from the possible harsh realities of married life that are to come.

c. 1750-1752, Oil on canvas, 120 x 94.5 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Fragonard, The See-Saw, c. 1750-1752, Oil on canvas, 120 x 94.5 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

As with most art there are a whole multitude of possible interpretations although sometimes a game is merely a game and should be kept at that. Taking Fragonard’s painting at face value allows us to see the captured innocence and childish nature of the children depicted and nothing more.

Some may judge this perception as a little naïve but “ready or not, here I come….”

Lily Thompson

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